Attaching symbolic value to plants, flowers, and trees is a phenomenon common to all languages and culture. In China, the cultivation and appreciation of plants is something that began thousands of years ago. From those times, Chinese people had endowed many plants with special significance.
Writers, poets and painters have long depicted flowers and trees in their artistic pursuits. Over time, the symbolism of plants has become a complex part of Chinese culture. Historically, plants have also been thought to embody certain spiritual features that have shaped the customs and character of China as a nation.
China is famous as being home to many thousands of varieties of flowers, many of which are cultivated for the personal pleasure of Chinese people. The ten most widely appreciated and culturally significant are peony, Chinese herbaceous peony, camellia, azalea, narcissus, chrysanthemum, plum blossom, lotus, Chinese flowering crab apple and orchid.
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Pine and bamboo are also very popular. Many different aspects of plants, flowers and trees are admired, including their shapes, colors, and scents. Furthermore, they are often endowed with spiritual and human attributes. In Chinese, the expression Three Friends in Cold Winter refers to pine, bamboo and plum trees.
Similarly, the expression Four Men of Honor refers to plum, orchid, bamboo and chrysanthemum, and Four Elegancies refers to the simple yet graceful orchid, chrysanthemum, narcissus and calamus.
Pine is held in high esteem as one of the Three Friends in Cold Winter because it is evergreen, grows straight and tall, and can endure cold weather with relative ease. People value it as a symbol of integrity, tenacity and uprightness. Confucius once said “Only after it turns winter are we aware of the survival of the pine and cypress.”
Pine represents a spirit of strength and perseverance, and of maintaining one’s integrity regardless of circumstances.
Due to the fact pine trees grow to a great age, they are also a symbol of longevity, I Chinese art pine trees and cranes represent long life. When being sent as greetings to older people on their birthdays, these especially popular couplets are often used:
As auspicious as the unceasing water in the eastern sea. As timeless as the longevity pine of the southern mountain.
A thousand year old crane. An evergreen pine tree.
As long living as the pine and cypress. As graceful as an orchid.
Every branch on a pine tree is over one hundred years. Every fruit of a peach tree is over a thousand years.